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Commentary | 2 July 2024

Gender as a flashpoint: Risks and resolutions for the NPT review process

Image of Sanaa Alvira

Sanaa Alvira |Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

NPT Gender NPT NPTProject Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Global Security Multilateral arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation

Preparations are underway for the second Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, to be held in Geneva in July 2024. This second NPT intersessional meeting will take place against a backdrop of increasingly tense geopolitical tensions between states. These tensions resulted in the last NPT Review Conference, held in August 2022, ending without a final agreement due to Russia’s opposition to the wording of the draft document on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant that is currently under Russian military occupation. However, a lesser-discussed aspect of the last Review Conference was the contentious nature of language relating to gender among States parties. These disagreements are adding to the tensions in the new review cycle.

The last NPT review cycle was the first in which gender aspects were discussed in limited ways across all three pillars of the NPT– through a number of side events and working papers with a specific focus on gender, and the inclusion of various gender-related language in the summaries of all three Chairs of the Preparatory Committee. It was also the first time that gender was included in a Review Conference outcome document.

However, these additions reflected the diverse opinions that many delegations had on the matter. While on the one hand, sixty-seven States parties signed a joint statement on gender, diversity, and inclusion; several others were not so welcoming of these references. For example, Egypt stated that the term “all genders” was not acceptable. Iran, supported by Cuba and Sri Lanka, questioned why certain terms like “nuclear weapon sharing” and “nuclear alliance” were “taboo” and suggested that the answer to those questions is similar to why many delegations were hesitant to discuss gender issues.

Interestingly, the issue of gender also seemed to divide members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the largest political grouping in the NPT review process, which has traditionally been cohesive on other issues, such as nuclear disarmament, nuclear-weapon-free-zones, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The debates reflected a spectrum of opinions — although  many delegations supported the broad inclusion of women in NPT proceedings,  others disagreed when discussions went beyond the scope of women’s participation to include references to “all genders,” “irrespective of their gender,” “all generations,” etc., stating that “the Review Conference was not a suitable forum for discussion of gender, diversity or similar concepts.”

While discussions on gender certainly gained traction in the last review cycle, they remained largely focused on issues of representation, with the exception of a few side events and working papers. The strong resistance of many delegations to the semantics associated with equal representation in NPT proceedings prevented more substantive discussions on the integration of gender perspectives in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament issues from taking place.

Discussions on gender will likely continue to be contentious among States parties, with a real possibility that disagreements over language relating to gender may derail the next Review Conference. Sanaa Alvira and Shizuka Kuramitsu

Discussions on gender will likely continue to be contentious among States parties, with a real possibility that disagreements over language relating to gender may derail the next Review Conference, scheduled for 2026. It continues to remain a “hot topic” as countries also debate these issues in related international fora. For example, in May 2024, the International Atomic Energy Agency hosted the International Conference on Nuclear Security in Vienna. This conference failed to produce a consensual Ministerial Declaration due to Iran’s objection to gender equality language. Similarly, in May 2023, the Conference on Disarmament hosted a panel on gender and disarmament within the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. In a tweet, the US ambassador affirmed the link between gender and disarmament, while the Russian ambassador questioned the relevance of integrating gender concepts in nuclear disarmament discussions, saying that, “such statements make me frightened.”

It is clear that countries cannot seem to agree even on the foundational aspects of how gender intersects with the broader non-proliferation and disarmament regime. This presents not just a challenge of diplomacy during NPT negotiations but also gives rise to the argument that such discussions may hamper progress on specific issues like nuclear disarmament. For example, Sri Lanka questioned, “whether such references contributed positively to nuclear disarmament or merely provided a useful distraction for some States parties.”

Against this backdrop, there is a growing need for States parties to take stock of the situation and proactively work on securing common ground in language relating to gender, given the strong views many countries hold on the topic. While some States parties may find the topic contentious or largely irrelevant to the main body of discussions in the NPT conferences, discussions on gender are here to stay – both within the NPT and the broader non-proliferation regime context, whether certain delegations like it or not.

As the topic of gender and its related dynamics continue to evolve and gain prominence in the NPT review process, there is an opportunity for some countries to take the initiative in building bridges among the polarised NPT community. Sanaa Alvira and Shizuka Kuramitsu

As the topic of gender and its related dynamics continue to evolve and gain prominence in the NPT review process, there is an opportunity for some countries to take the initiative in building bridges among the polarised NPT community and identify productive next steps on this issue. Coalitions and groupings of States have historically played an important role at critical junctures in the NPT review cycle. For example, faced with challenges stemming from the lack of a consensus outcome document in 2015 and the prevailing divisions between the disarmament and non-proliferation community, the Swedish government, with ministers from sixteen nations, launched a disarmament “Stockholm Initiative” in June 2019. The aim of this initiative was to “reduce polarisation between countries and take concrete steps towards the common ultimate goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.” Similarly, the New Agenda Coalition, formally launched in June 1998, was the result of consultations among several non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) on “what ‘middle powers’ could do to more effectively promote nuclear disarmament in light of the complacency of the nuclear weapon states.”

At the current juncture, the time is ripe for like-minded States to come together and take the lead not only in exploring and advancing gender issues in all its dimensions but also in fostering dialogue, promoting understanding and seeking common ground on language relating to gender. While several working papers on gender have been submitted, there is value in having a formal grouping of States to address concerns that other States may have on this issue and hold consultations, alongside their work in advancing gender mainstreaming efforts in the NPT review cycle. It will also allow for gender as a topic to be more formally institutionalised in the NPT review process, with work being carried out in a structured and sustained way across review cycles.

Additionally, the Chair of the next Preparatory Committee (and all future Chairs) should consider holding consultations with States parties to navigate the diverse opinions and contentious nature surrounding gender issues within the NPT review process. This approach will not only promote inclusivity and consideration of opinions but also enhance the prospects for meaningful progress towards gender mainstreaming within the NPT review cycle.

A few years ago, no one would have imagined that gender would be so highly disputed within the NPT context. Today, however, the issue is firmly on the agenda and will continue to remain so. The sooner this is recognised and proactively worked with, the fewer stumbling blocks will need to be overcome in protecting consensus-based NPT review processes from discord, division, and potential deadlock.

Gender is here to stay. It is time for NPT States parties to work with it.

The European Leadership Network itself as an institution holds no formal policy positions. The opinions articulated above represent the views of the authors rather than the European Leadership Network or its members. The ELN aims to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time, to further its charitable purposes.

Image: Wikimendia commons, Lyudamy, Lyudmyla Mysko, “Gender Equality”, 2019